At six o’clock on a recent Tuesday, a small huddle of New Yorkers walked through the looming black gates of Green-Wood Cemetery and made their way to a crematory chapel. They picked up tea and cookies at a side table and took their seats, ready to start the Death Café.
In an adjacent room, 61-year-old death educator Amy Cunningham, wearing Buddhist prayer beads and rose-colored pom-pom earrings, prepared to lead the discussion. She’s run the Brooklyn Death Café, an offshoot of the international movement to normalize conversations about death, since 2015. “These Death Cafés are, in our own way, bringing the dead back into our daily lives,” Cunningham explained, “by visiting and communing with them and going to spaces like the crematory and seeing the urns in the wall. This is altogether a healthy and positive thing.”
Cunningham, who worked as a writer and editor for decades, became involved in the death industry after her own father’s passing, with hopes of helping others cope with the passing of a loved one as her own funeral director had helped her. She is now an independent funeral director focused on eco-friendly burial and cremation. The cafés, which she leads as a volunteer, are another element of her practice. “I just thought it’d be a nice way to educate people,” Cunningham says. “Death shouldn’t be so scary. The more we move in toward death, the more we’ll learn and put ourselves at ease about our own inevitable demise.”
This was the third café held at Green-Wood (previously, they’d happened at the now-shuttered Morbid Anatomy Museum), whose rolling, serene hills hold over half a million graves. “We [thought], the Death Café would be something wonderful to host here,” said Harry Weil, Green-Wood’s programming manager. “We don’t have many ways people can talk about what we are, which is a cemetery, and talk about death.”
Some guests are repeat regulars, but every session of about thirty hosts first-timers. A majority of the attendees are under forty, which Cunningham told the group assembled she was surprised to see when she began facilitating the café. “I don’t know if it was the trauma of 9-11 in your childhood [that] has acquainted you with a world where death can come at any time, unexpectedly, in a nightclub as you’re sitting there. I just find [younger] people really compassionate and open to puzzling these things out with us older people.”
Cristina Angeles, 25, came to the café on a recommendation from a co-worker at the after-school program where she works. “You don’t just find people on the street that you could sit down and talk to about death,” she said. “To have like-minded individuals gather here, it’s very useful, it’s very helpful.”
The first Death Café was organized precisely for this reason — to bring together people who wanted to get comfortable talking about death. In 2011, London web designer Jon Underwood hosted a salon modeled on the teachings of Swiss sociologist Bernard Crettaz, who in 2004 began organizing experiences called “cafés mortels” in which participants could actively discuss death in to enhance their understanding of it. In 2012, Underwood and his mother published a Death Café how-to online; the nonreligious, agenda-free experience caught on, leaping across the Atlantic for the first time to Columbus, Ohio, that same year.
It’s a reversal for American culture, which for a long time has shied away from these conversations. “We’ve medicalized death and locked it up in our hospitals and haven’t been comfortable communing with it in any other way,” Cunningham said. But things weren’t always this way: In the Victorian era, when families often expected children to die in infancy, death was an active part of life, and its visual markers were everywhere. People hung wreaths on their doors to notify visitors and observers of a passing, wore mourning garments to signify their status, and treated cemeteries as public parks. While those customs themselves haven’t made a comeback, communities like the Death Café are multiplying. Cunningham’s is the only one in Brooklyn, but there are at least three more in Manhattan. Over 4,200 meetings have happened to date, spread across 45 more countries.
To open the Café conversation Tuesday evening, Cunningham offered prompts: What might be a good death? What were your earliest childhood memories associated with death? What would be on your funeral playlist? She gently reminded the group that tonight was not for psychotherapy or bereavement counseling. It turned out one woman, fifty-year-old Jamie Moroni, had come for precisely that. She stayed anyway.
The room split off into four smaller groups. Conversations around the chapel ranged from the AIDS crisis in the Eighties to assisted suicide, depression, terminal illness, and throwing oneself a goodbye party. Guests weighed what it would mean to experience a sudden death versus being able to plan for it. Topics flowed with surprising ease from one to the next, a phenomenon Cunningham is familiar with. “Folks open up about the subject in a way they wouldn’t with their own families initially,” she said. “I think it’s like a rehearsal for the conversation at home.”
Kellyn Leveton, a 35-year-old fashion designer from Brooklyn, was relieved to find the space. “A lot of times when you do talk about death with people, they think it’s really morbid and it’s usually kind of a hushed situation, or they don’t understand your humor because they think it’s supposed to be very serious,” she said. “I think this was a nice place where [it] wasn’t anything to shy away from.”
Jamie Moroni, the woman who came expecting grief counseling, said the experience was productive. “My dad recently passed away so I was looking for something to talk to people about. We wound up talking about celebrating someone’s life and how important it is not just for the person who you’re celebrating but for the people who are doing it,” she said. “It’s very cathartic, especially when you’re in a cemetery, which is a beautiful place.”
That’s a conversation Cunningham knows well. “A discussion of death is also a discussion of life,” she said. “It’s a platitude to say ‘live like it’s the last day of your life,’ but it really does force people to engage in their reality in a different way.”